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Amid storm, prices skyrocket in Texas

Hotel rooms at $ 1,000 a night. Gasoline on the rise. Even bottled water has doubled or tripled in price overnight.

Texas officials say the winter storm that has left millions of residents without power and water has become an opportunity for unscrupulous merchants to take advantage of the situation and charge exorbitant prices for essentials.

A system activated in Houston for residents to report price manipulation received more than 450 complaints in less than 20 hours, said Harris County Chief Civil Attorney Christian Menefee.

“The things we are seeing mostly are hotels that are setting ridiculous rates,” Menefee said. “We have seen reports of packages of water sold at a price two or three times higher than normal.”

Dashawn Walker, 33, was looking for a hotel room Tuesday night to avoid the cold in her Dallas apartment because she had no power. When he saw that all the hotel rooms in Dallas were booked, he drove to a hotel in the Lewisville suburb. He paid $ 474 for one night.

“It’s madness,” he said. “Why do all hotels go up in price in the middle of a crisis? Please! Everyone tries to get ahead and they take advantage of a crisis; it is very unfair to people who cannot afford it ”.

Such hikes are illegal under Texas law, which prohibits the sale “at exorbitant or excessive prices” of fuel, food, medicine, shelter, building materials or other items if a state disaster declaration has been made or federal.

The Texas Attorney General’s office asked residents if they suspect they have been victims of price manipulation to file a complaint.

Violators could be required to make refunds and face civil penalties of up to $ 10,000 per violation. Additional fines of up to $ 250,000 could be imposed if the victims are elderly.

Larry Hamilton, a Dallas hotelier, said that while there may be legitimate allegations of price manipulation, he wondered if some complaints were without merit. He said his 193-room Aloft hotel in Dallas charges an average of $ 94 a night and that one customer was furious when he was given a rate of $ 109.

“He called my general manager and was threatening to report us for price manipulation,” Hamilton said. “Also, this is basic economics, price is what creates the balance between supply and demand, and it is an important regulator. The price is something that fluctuates and should do it ”.